Over the course of The Merchant of Venice, do you believe Shakespeare makes the character Shylock to be the ultimate victim or villian?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Based on two things that occur in The Merchant of Venice, it seems that Shakespeare is establishing Shylock as a pseudo-villain who is a victim. The first occurrence is the conversation between Antonio and Shylock in the marketplace while Shylock is deciding about advancing the three thousand ducats. The conversation is preceded by an unfortunate, though seemingly innocent, remark from Bassanio. The other occurrence is the promise made by a Christian to a Jew, at the end of the play, in which Antonio promises to restore Shylock's wealth to its rightful Jewish heir, Jessica, who represents with Lorenzo the joining of Jew and Christian.

To elaborate on the first, in the marketplace, Bassanio says that Shylock can talk with Antonio that night if he will join them for dinner. Bassanio doesn't seem to present this opening as a dare or as a threat but as a genuinely innocent gesture with a statement of truth: they are going to dine; Shylock can see Antonio at dinner. A goodly chunk of dialogue in Act I Scene 1 establishes that the friends are going to join for dinner that night.

Shylock reacts to this with umbrage, taking offense, because as a Jew, he is bound to keep himself kosher, which prohibits joining Gentiles (non-Jews) at meals. Shylock doesn't seem to be presenting a prejudiced attitude here because he says he will walk with, talk with, do business with, etc, Gentiles but, because of his ethnicity and religion, he will not eat with Gentiles.

Then enters Antonio and his conversation is in stark contrast in tone to both Bassanio's and Shylock's conversation: humanity exits, animosity enters. Shylock is surprised that Antonio is coming to him (Antonio did say that they would exhaust all resources to find Bassanio a loan on Antonio's credit...) for a loan because of all the terrible things Antonio has said about him and all the insulting, unkind behaviors he has exhibited toward him. With every opportunity that Antonio has of offering a humble presence befitting one who is asking a former (current) enemy for a favor, Antonio chooses instead to stick a metaphorical verbal knife in Shylock's heart and twist it and insult him and berate him more and more.

Shylock has a growing rage that is kept subdued but is there nonetheless and finally explodes with the inspiration of the bond of a pound of flesh, which Antonio arrogantly, callously, pridefully agrees to rather than show humility, kindness, rationality or contrition for hateful words (all gross violations of Christianity). Bassanio recognizes the enormity of what is about to transpire even though Antonio's foolishness blinds him from seeing.

This incident, when looked at without a bias toward a universal Christian society, depicts Shylock as the victim of Antonio's very un-Christian pride and hatred, a hatred which has propelled Shylock to embrace revenge, an equal violation of his religion of which he was formerly so careful--he refused to even smell pork--and into the position of a Jewish villain against a Christian assumed to have been taken advantage of. The details of their marketplace conversation prove, however, that the Christian, while violating the premier tenets of his religion, took advantage of and victimized the Jew.